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Margrafs caring for the soil with no-till

By Matt Reese

The 1,110 Seneca County farm of Bret and Gene Margraf has long history of making no-till work on the diverse soil types and rolling land. The Margrafs were the Ohio No-Till Council Outstanding No-Till Farmers of the Year for their dedication to the land.

Bret farms with his father, Gene, and they were the Ohio No-Till Council Outstanding No-Till Farmers of the Year for their dedication to the land.

The move toward conservation started with Gene’s experimentation with a JD 7000 planter for no-till farming in the late 1970s. The soil types on the farm range from blow sand to silt loam and heavy clay, sometimes all in the same field. The first attempts with no-till started on the best-drained ground that was the most conducive to the new type of farming.

“We started with no-till beans in the sandier farms,” Gene said. “Then we got a little braver and tried it on some other soils. There might have been a yield drop at first in the corn depending on the soil type. The silty clays were a real challenge.”

Through the years, the key to no-till has been patience.

“When the neighbors are planting, wait,” Gene said.

Gradually, the farm moved to what is now a nearly 100% no-till system.

“The intent is to be 100% now, but there are still some situations where we have to do some tillage,” Bret said. “The AerWay was a nice transition tool for no-till. It helped our soils accept the no-till.”

The AerWay is used much less now, as most of the soils on the farm have improved enough that it is not needed.

“We generally were using the AerWay ahead of corn in the spring as a drying tool,” Bret said. “We also used it to incorporate the rye and our potash. We still use the AerWay on wheat stubble after manure application.”

The use of manure has been another important part of the transition of the farm’s soils. They make use of local poultry and hog manure. The hog manure goes on with a dragline immediately before corn is planted on about 500 acres. The poultry manure is brokered and goes on following the harvest of 275 acres of wheat and before the cover crop is planted.

“The broker costs a bit more, but it is really convenient, and it is required by the ODA,” Bret said.

As an employee for the Soil and Water Conservation District, Bret knows more than many the importance of careful nutrient management.

“We do stalk nitrate samples at the end of the season and make adjustments as needed,” he said. “We use 2 by 2 in-row placement of fertilizer at planting and we do a pre-sidedress nitrate test to determine our sidedress rates. We’ve found that in a lot of places we need to pull back our nitrogen rates. We have our fields in management zones based on soil type, yields and elevation. We also have two drainage control structures for shutting off the tile if we need to.”

Controlled traffic is one more piece of the no-till puzzle on the farm. The controlled traffic also allows them to get in wet fields a little earlier without causing compaction problems.

“We have been using controlled traffic for 4 years now. It was a costly initial investment, but I really like it for when we are spraying. We noticed this year how the wetter soils still supported the combine. We didn’t make tracks in any fields,” Bret said. “That is the most damaging thing we do when the cops are growing, specially in wheat where we are spraying 3 or 4 times.”

While they are no spending time with tillage, the Margrafs still have a high management system, but they continue to see more benefits as time passes.

“I wish we would have documented the soil’s color change. We have seen organic matter go up and the soils are getting darker,” Bret said. “The yields are all plus, plus plus in our conventional and non-GMO crops. We don’t see water ponding in the fields where it used to. And, in the winter, we don’t see any dirty snow drifts along the ditches.”

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